A picaresque is, strictly, any prose fiction which tells the tale of a rogue-servant, or picaro. The picaro serves various masters; he travels hither and yon; his observations about his "betters" are a form of Estates Satire, though he has no commitment to the preservation of the established order (see Theodicy); he is seen as a survivor of war and its aftermath; in the end, he may find the home which – perhaps unconsciously – he had been seeking. The picaro is a human mote dislodged from a secure world, who witnesses a dissolute and/or dissolving social order, and who refastens himself to the normal world only at the end. Picaresques tend to be written, therefore, during periods of social upheaval or interregnum. The first examples known – the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (1553) and Guzmán de Alfarache (1599-1604) by Mateo Alemán (1547-?1614) – bracket the decline of Imperial Spain. The Adventurous Simplicissimus (1669) by Johann Grimmelshausen (?1625-1676) reflects the Thirty Years' War. Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull (1954), Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959), John Barth's The Sotweed Factor (1960) and The Painted Bird (1965) by Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991) are picaresque visions of our own century.
If the picaro's habit of finding safe haven in the end can be – remotely – deemed to resemble a Quest, then many Sword-and-Sorcery tales can be seen to ape elements of the classic picaresque, and some of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales by Fritz Leiber inhabit a genuinely similar moral landscape; stories featuring Childe figures, like Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence, or the Confidence Man, like Terry Bisson's Talking Man (1986), also deploy picaresque effects. Dying-Earth tales – like Jack Vance's Cugel sequence or Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983) – are picaresques, for the worlds there depicted are dioramas through which, faintly, satirical visions of the 20th century can be discerned.
As an adjective, the term can be fairly applied to any tale in which individual episodes dominate (or seem to dominate), though an element of Satire should probably be present for the term to convey any useful meaning. Apuleius's The Golden Ass (circa 165) is in this double sense clearly picaresque, as are Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972), Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds (1984), Franz Kafka's America (1927), William Kotzwinkle's Doctor Rat (1976), Jeanne Larsen's Silk Road (1989), John Myers Myers's Silverlock (1949), David Henry Wilson's The Coachman Rat (1985) and Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows (1971). [JC]